Friday, March 02, 2018

The Better Angels: U MAD?

Elizabeth Kolbert's
New Yorker author portrait
(I added "U Mad?")
Steven Pinker is still angry about Elizabeth Kolbert's review of "The Better Angels" in the New Yorker, "Peace in Our Time," seven years later.

We can see it on display in his now notorious section about the Tuskegee syphilis study in his just-published "Enlightenment Now."

It was brought to my attention in a Twitter argument I saw Angus Johnston have with a Pinkerite.

You see, only people who don't understand what Pinker is saying - or are misrepresenting him - could possibly have complaints about Steven Pinker.

The Serene Master is beyond reproach and the criticisms of ordinary, non-Pinkerite mortals.

The text under discussion, from "Enlightenment Now" quoted by Angus Johnston begins:
At a recent conference, another colleague summed up what she thought was the mixed legacy of science: vaccines for smallpox on the one hand; the Tuskegee syphilis study on the other. In that affair, another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science...
I'd be willing to bet that Pinkerite Cathy S has no idea why Pinker uses the term "another bloody shirt" in this context. But thanks to my having been critiquing Better Angels for the past several days, I do.

In his web site on a page about his response to reviews of Better Angels he wrote:
In her final paragraph, Kolbert waves the bloody Norwegian shirt one more time, and informs us, “Hate and madness and cruelty haven't disappeared, and they aren't going to.” No honest reviewer would imply that this is the message of the book.
The first several paragraphs of the Kolbert review discuss the Norwegian holiday camp slaughter by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011 and concludes:
“How long would the Norway gunman have lasted in Texas, or any state where concealed-carry laws are on the books?” Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s oldest son, asked in a widely reprinted opinion piece. “I ran a survey while on a cruise: in Texas, three minutes; in Montana, seven to eight minutes; in Arizona, two minutes; and in Nevada, three to five minutes. . . . There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that, if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will carry guns.” 
Another possible take on Utøya—admittedly not a popular one—is that the whole incident was blown way out of proportion. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking; $40), Steven Pinker didn’t get a chance to comment on the Utøya shootings, since the volume went to press before the attack took place. Yet the book can be read as a long argument—a seven-hundred-page-long argument—for this last proposition.
She's talking about Pinker's habit of dismissing contemporary acts of violence in order to shore up the thesis of Better Angels.

Speaking of being misrepresented, Kolbert's thoughts on Pinker's claims about violence are repurposed by Pinker into "another bloody shirt in the standard narrative about the evils of science."

It's great for this evo-psycho bro series that Pinker is so obsessed with reviews of "The Better Angels" it makes this section of the series au courant.

It is abundantly clear that Pinker tries to minimize the damage of the Tuskegee atrocity because he can't tolerate the slightest criticism of anything having to do with science. Because Steven Pinker is not rational. He's certainly not much of a scientist with his petty grudge-holding over seven-year-old book reviews.

The author of the Enlightenment Now review in The New York Times had this amusing exchange on Twitter:

Pinker later writes on the same web page about Better Angels:
But aren’t you just being defensive? Authors always think that negative reviews of their book are wrong. Has anyone else replied to Kolbert? 
Razib Khan has a response in the Gene Expression blog on the Discover magazine Web site:
Pinker points to an evo-psycho/sociobiology/human biodiversity/hereditarian proponent when his book about violence is criticized. I'll talk more about that next.

And before I forget, here's an excellent video by Rebecca Watson with even more criticisms of the book.